The Print Run in Movable-Type Printing

This is a rather specialized post that might be of interest to book historians only. While collecting sources for my dissertation research, I recently saw a curious colophon in a book by the Ming official Xu Xuemo 徐學謨 (1522-93), Collection of Extraneous Things Learned in Shizong’s Reign (Shimiao shiyu lu 世廟識餘錄).1 A biji-style compilation on events of the Jiajing reign (1522-66), the book was printed by Xuemo’s son Xu Zhaoji 徐兆稷. As Zhaoji’s colophon explains, the book was printed using a borrowed set of movable types:

It has been more than ten years since this book was completed, yet we have been too poor to print it. We could only borrow movable types to print a hundred copies for now, keeping them in our family collection and not daring to let them circulate in the world. Yet even with movable type it takes quite a lot of trouble, so [the printing] could not be continued on. It is hoped that the reader will understand this. By Xu Zhaoji.

Xu Zhaoji’s colophon

I was excited to see this colophon because a book that states its own print run is quite rare as far as I know. Also interesting was the number a hundred — I was aware that books printed with movable type tended to have lower print runs compared to those printed using woodblock, but somehow I had expected that even these books would have had a print run of several hundred. Assuming that typesetting constituted the most time-consuming part in the process of book-making, would it not be the case that the great cost associated with typesetting would have been much larger than the combined costs of paper, ink, printing, and binding, so that once someone had prepared the typeset pages, he would have wanted to print something more than just a hundred copies?

First page after the colophon — preface by Xu Xuemo

I imagine there must exist some detailed studies on these issues, but since I have not been able to locate one yet, I decided to compile a list of other known print runs. To do this, I went through Zhang Xiumin’s 张秀民 History of Printing in China 中国印刷史 (Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1989), which contains a substantial section on the history of movable type printing from Song to Qing. The table below is a summary of the known print runs mentioned in this book, drawn from either the extant books themselves or premodern catalogues and second-hand descriptions.2 In order to retain the ambiguity in some of the numbers, in describing the print runs I have retained the original Chinese expressions provided in Zhang’s book, some (but not all) of which have been quoted from the original sources.

Year Title /
(Place of Printing)
Print Run Zhang
Page #
1298 旌德縣志 王禎 (旌德) * 百部 674
1574 太平御覽
周堂 (浙江) 百餘部 689
1597 城真寓存稿
李登 * 數百本 680
徐兆稷 (嘉定?) * 百部 680
郭相奎 (杭州) 百許部 680
(杭州) 百餘部 680
1720-25? 古今圖書集成
雍正帝? (北京) 六十至六十六部? 718
1774-? 永樂大典各種佚書 乾隆帝 (北京) 五至二十部或
1805 甫里逸詩 周氏易安書屋 百部 707
1830, 1831 南疆繹史勘本
李瑤 (杭州) 八十部 (1830)
百部 (1831)
修凝斋集 若干部 697
淮城信今錄 百部 697
數部 703
寒支集 若干部 703

Contrary to my original expectations, the list suggests that print runs of a hundred or lower were more often the norm. It is also notable that there are several cases (marked by asterisk signs * ) in which the sponsor of the printing was the author himself or someone in his family, including the case of Xu Xuemo. I am not sure whether these numbers are supposed to be surprising, but to me, they indicate the relative ease with which personal works of this type could be printed, albeit in small numbers. It would be interesting if we could learn more about how, in the minds of the Ming-Qing writers and readers, these small-scale printed copies differed from works that were reproduced and circulated in manuscript form.

Added on 2013.02.04:

I noticed after writing this post that there was a short article by Inoue Susumu 井上進 on Ming movable-type printing,4 where I learned several additional points:

  • Inoue makes the same speculation that the print run of movable-type printing was about one hundred, citing four of the examples that appear in the table above. Additionally, he cites two Japanese examples that support this number (p. 104).

  • The article also discusses the print run of block-printed books. These were about 200-300 copies for low-demand books such as local gazetteers, and ran up to 1,000 copies or more for books that were in higher demand (p. 104-5).

  • Despite Xu Zhaoji’s colophon that I quoted above, it seems that Xu Xuemo’s Shimiao shiyu lu 世廟識餘錄 was later reprinted using woodblocks, first in 1608 (by Xu Xuemo’s grandson) and then in 1614. Extant copies of these two editions are now held in Japan and Taiwan respectively, and I have not been able to see either of them. (See Inoue p. 109 and p. 448 footnote 43.)


  1. Edition in Siku quanshu cunmu congshu 四庫全書存目叢書, shibu vol. 49. For more on Xu Xuemo, see Chao-ying Fang and L. Carrington Goodrich eds. Dictionary of Ming Biography (Columbia University Press, 1976), 585-87.

  2. Zhang Xiumin’s book is very encyclopedic and informative, but it is not sufficiently rigorous in its citations. I have not checked the original sources to confirm the accuracy of the information reproduced in here.

  3. The numbers of juan given in square brakets [ ] were added by me using book catalogues. They may be different from the particular editions described by Zhang.

  4. Susumu Inoue 井上進, “Mindai katujikō” 明代活字考, in Min Shin gakujutsu hensenshi : shuppan to dentō gakujutsu no rinkaiten 明清学術変遷史ー出版と伝統学術の臨界点, (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2011), 90-109.

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  1. Great post, this stuff is really interesting to me and I believe must be relevant to basically anybody working mostly on printed—as opposed to archival—sources. I hope you share more of your findings, here or in any other form!

  2. Mårten:
    Thanks for the kind comment — it’s very encouraging to hear that you find it interesting. I really hesitated writing this post because I haven’t even checked all of the English-language works that might be relevant, not to mention all the Chinese and Japanese scholarship. I’m sure what I’m writing here is not “new” information at all, but I still find it interesting to think and talk about it nonetheless.

  3. Lan Wu

     /  2013/02/02

    Hi Chelsea,

    Another wonderful entry. Do you happen to know who the intended audience of these works? It is also interesting to note that Li Deng’s and Xu Zhaoji’s are “yugao” and “cunlu,” does that mean the collected works were related to some other major works of the authors?

    Thanks for sharing, look forward to more of your blog entries.


  4. Ulan:

    Thank you for taking an interest in this post! I think the short answer is that the expected audience varies a lot depending on the sponsor and the book being printed. For example, the court-sponsored 古今圖書集成 was most likely aimed at the imperial family and the high officials, but books such as wenji and biji could be printed by the author’s family and distributed within the family and/or a small circle of friends, as Xu Zhaoji’s colophon explains.

    Of course, there is a broad range of audience even within these genres, and it’s a really interesting and complicated question that I’m not ready to answer at the moment. I might address some of this in an upcoming blog post, but I think we need more research to be able to provide a thorough answer.

    As to the word 存稿, I think it is usually used in titles of wenji that were compiled posthumously by the author’s family or friends. The connotation is that the author wrote many other texts (poems, letters, memorials etc.) during his lifetime, but the compilers only managed to collect a fraction of those that were still extant. I think 餘錄 just means the records are “extraneous,” in the sense of not of the primary importance. My understanding is that in using this expression, the work (a type of private history) is contrasted to works of 正史.

  5. The Weiwei

     /  2013/11/19

    How did I miss this post before?


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